Michael A. Estrada is a photo and filmmaker, educator, ecologist, and EJ activist from California. After graduating from UCLA, he moved to the Marin Headlands for an ecological restoration position in the Golden Gate National Parks. Inspired by his experience with volunteer audiences and school group visits, he then became an outdoor and environmental educator in San Francisco. There, he honed his passions for storytelling, environmental justice, and creative engagement. In late 2016 he began his transition toward journalism, with the ongoing commitment to elevate the voices of communities and people through story and visual representation. Michael partners with (outdoor) brands, non-profits, and news agencies around the world. He is a first-generation Salvadoran American, and in his free time aspires to a zero-waste lifestyle, trains as a triathlete, and drinks plenty of tea.
Name: Michael A. Estrada
Hometown: Los Angeles, California
Occupation: Documentary journalist
Outdoor Passion: Photo, identifying plants, cycling, and camping.
What was your introduction to the outdoors?
I was born in Culver City. My family and parents are both from El Salvador. Most of my exposure to the "outdoors" was through playing soccer my whole life, so I actually spent a lot of time outside. Still, the word hiking didn’t fall into my vocabulary until college. Before then, soccer was a really intense part of my life, and I dabbled with running in high school as well. I would say my earliest connection with nature was as a high school freshman on the cross-country team. We went—I don’t even know where it was—but I have a very vivid memory of running as fast as I could, alone, on some random trail. I didn't use trail shoes, just some blue and white, Nike indoor soccer flats. That was my first experience of feeling in tune and clearly connected to nature— although I didn’t know how to name it yet. I couldn't yet connect how spiritual and meaningful that experience was for me, but it planted the seed.
Then in college I slowly found my way back to that. One day, in my 3rd year, I decided I wanted to do triathlons. I thought, 'I know how to ride a bike kinda and there are these nice beautiful outdoor pools', even though I didn’t know too much about swimming. I knew how to stay afloat (roughly speaking) and swim around but lane or competitive swimming was completely foreign to me. Even the notion that you put your head under water the whole time and only stick your head out to breathe—I had no idea.
So one day in between classes I just showed up at the pool. I walked out in board shorts. I didn’t have a swimming gap or goggles. I didn’t know what I was doing but I was just going to jump into the pool and figure it out. It didn't really work out. I could barely swim down half the lane before I got a cramp. But I went back. I went every day and little by little it started to make sense: the flags above my head, the lines at the bottom of the pool. I did that for a couple weeks and realized that I loved swimming. Growing up, it wasn't a thing that I ever considered I would do but suddenly I couldn't get enough of it. Eventually, I joined the UCLA Masters swimming team to keep improving and a couple weeks later I joined the UCLA triathlon team, as well. While it was great for the motivation it gave me to compete, it wasn't an inviting space. I remember feeling that I really loved the sport but I didn’t feel comfortable asking questions. So I resorted to figuring things out for myself. Triathlon itself is very elitist in nature just because it is so expensive. And to be honest—that was kind of my vague motivation to try triathlon in the first place: I wanted to break past the barriers and the elitism. I wanted to show that I could compete without fancy gear (or any).
So, how do you work in a National Park?
When I graduated from college, my family was going through some major upheavals—bankruptcy and divorce, at the core—so I spent some time in Canada staying with my aunt and focusing on creative projects. When I returned in late April 2013, though, I was still unsure of what I was going to do. I knew I had this interest in writing and photography, and had made some movies for my own and family's amusement, but there wasn't any focused direction. That summer my Dad and I decided to go on a road-trip. At the time we were both super broke but we went anyway, and I put all the expenses on a credit card. It ended up lasting a week and half. We took this really huge tent that eventually broke down on us three days in because we didn’t set it up properly. But while we were out there, I felt that peace that I first felt running on that trail in high school. Intuitively, I knew it had something to do with being outside and the simplicity of being able to spend time with my dad. So, when I got back I was like 'what if I could somehow live in a National Park?' It wasn't relevant to what I studied at UCLA but I knew that the connection I'd felt wasn't just a coincidence. Even though I graduated with the intention of becoming a writer or a lawyer—it changed after this particularly difficult year. The whole situation of losing everything was a catalyst. So I started googling "How do you work in a national park?" and eventually, somehow, landed on the non-profit where I would spend the next few years working. The position was based in San Francisco to work in the Golden Gates National Recreation Area as an Ecological Restoration and Volunteer Management Intern. I was gone.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
So, just a couple of months after that camping trip with my dad, I suddenly found myself living in a little house in the Marin Headlands. It was October 2013. It felt like it was in the middle of nowhere even though the Golden Gate Bridge is literally right there. It was completely different from anything I had ever experienced. There was even a bobcat that often used to hang right outside my window! Super cute. It was a really cool experience and I loved it. I think I was hired because I had lots of education and volunteer management experience, but I studied day and night to catch up science-wise. I studied botany, restoration theory, resource management, and little by little found myself learning terms like "environmental justice" and "environmental racism". The seeds were growing, and the connections I was beginning to make were beginning to nag at me. That was also the year when I started getting into the "outdoors"—in the traditional sense anyway! I started camping more and "hiking". I started obtaining my own gear little by little. I was leading people on hikes and plant walks, talking about medicinal plant uses and specific area's history. I even helped with the Coho salmon restoration at Redwood Creek. The internship provided housing and a monthly stipend but I had to tutor to supplement my income so I was working like 6 to 7 days a week. I had no financial support but I didn't want it to stop me. Even still, that year, being the super intense (extra) person that I was, I became a vegetarian, financed a bike and trained for an Ironman. I felt so at peace when I was running in these beautiful places. It was a very life-changing year for me.
Our greater department had a high school program where they'd invite San Francisco students (mainly of color) to apply for an internship over the summer. As an intern I helped out and found the experience extremely satisfying. I could teach and mentor students like myself. Then a couple of months later, I applied for an outdoor environmental educator position. I got the job! And that’s where I spent the next couple of years doing outdoor education until late 2016.
It was the same as before: learning and studying on my free time, and applying my life experience to make things relevant. I created videos and curriculum, shot photos and created videos when I could, even created a new after-school program, but eventually found that I wasn't being creative enough. I loved teaching, but it was still missing that component. I left that position with the intention of refocusing my career. I traveled for a few months, and did a few seemingly random positions in the mean time, using the connections I built in the Bay to look for some creative pursuits. Honestly, journalism or documentary work hadn't occurred to me yet. But then: I heard about PGM ONE and thought—'this sounds awesome, that’s exactly what I want to be doing!'
People of the Global Majority One
I ended up going to the inaugural 2017 summit in Oakland as a volunteer photographer and received a small stipend. That’s where I met José González, Founder of Latino Outdoors. After that meeting I ended up working with Latino Outdoors; doing photography for them throughout summer 2017. That experience, along with a rather harrowing one (story for another day) helped me realize that there was an outlet for what I wanted to do, essentially teaching and being creative at the same time. Enter journalism, photo essays, and documentaries. The skills that I had been practicing the past few years were finally meeting in a fluid, ideal, and natural manner.
In the past few months I've applied to journalism school (and was recently accepted into Columbia's graduate Documentary Journalism program) and have begun thinking possible next steps. However, one of my mentors and former colleagues pointed out that I already had all of the skills and knowledge to do things now. I had the media skills, I had the educator experience, and I had the expertise in a wide variety of topics like environmental justice and ecology. After a few weeks of hitting my head against the imaginary wall, it hit me: what if I just created all the ideas I ever had but never had the time to do? What came was Brown Environmentalist. If the past few years were any indication, there was a need for POC stories as told by POC and well-researched, well-produced media to support it. The stories that I would tell my students or the narratives I was trying to teach weren't easily found or necessarily there, and I often created the curriculum from scratch. I wanted to change this. The inspiration for BE is essentially that: amplify what's out there, change the traditional narrative, and create what isn't.
Brown Environmentalist Media Co.
Since its inception in December 2017, BE has grown and transformed a little but the above goals are exactly the same. We're growing, and have begun partnering with folks to produce new media. Check out our website to find more info, but in case you haven't seen it this is BE's mission statement:
BE Media Collective is a collaborative, long form, and multimedia collective working to amplify the experiences, contributions and leadership of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in the environment. We are a small team of photo & filmmakers, educators, journalists, and activists striving to uplift and influence public imagination for the better. Our mission is to uproot and replace traditional environmentalism with narratives that empower POC and acknowledge us as leaders; amplify the content that already exists; and finally: create what doesn't.